Relevant aspects of oiled fauna in emergencies in the hydrocarbon industry.

Source: [7]

When oil spill emergencies occur, whether in marine, freshwater or terrestrial ecosystems, response actions should be directed primarily at protecting the lives and physical integrity of those exposed, as well as minimising damage to the environment.

Depending on the areas where these oil spills are generated, there may be potential impacts on wildlife, considering factors such as location, type of spilled product, seasonality of the species, movements of individuals in the affected areas and meteorological conditions. Therefore, response plans for the care of wildlife must be established in advance, focused on the identification and care of individuals or populations affected or at risk of being affected. According to IPIECA, this response plan should be based on three principles: Animal welfare, conservation and non-intervention.

The articulation of the environmental sensitivity analyses and knowledge of the affected areas, with the Response Plans for the care of the fauna, are tools for decision-making and provide the indications for the personnel involved to apply the required strategies.

Effects of oil on wildlife and wildlife populations
Source: Taken from Guidance for planning responses to oiled wildlife. IPIECA Report Series. Volume Thirteen, 2004. Modified by Varichem de Colombia, 2020. [1]

In this scenario, and going deeper into the Response Plan in the event of wildlife being affected, it is necessary to carry out a rapid and adequate treatment so that the affected wildlife specimen suffers as little as possible, and has the possibility of being rehabilitated so that it can be released back into the environment as soon as possible. The following is a brief description of some of the oil spill emergencies that have occurred at the international level, in order to understand the effects on wildlife and the actions taken for their recovery and rehabilitation.

Oil Spill in Prince William Bay

One of the best known events in the oil industry worldwide was the emergency that occurred in Prince William Bay in the United States (24 March 1989). The origin of the spill was due to the fact that the oil tanker known as Exxon Valdez (Exxon Mobil Inc.) hit the Bligh reef, causing its tanks to rupture and, in turn, a spill of about 40.9 million litres of crude oil. From an environmental point of view, this event occurred during the migration of salmon, migratory birds and in the breeding season of most species of birds, mammals and fish (Berg, 1999) [2].

This emergency not only affected the fauna of the bay, but also that which was present to the southwest along the Gulf of Alaska, and on the Kodiak and Alaska peninsulas where the oil was also dispersed. Actions included the search and rescue of wildlife species, the establishment of rehabilitation, research and monitoring centres, and the allocation of more than $900 million to implement a 10-year restoration plan. However, despite these efforts, it is estimated that around 250,000 seabirds (Piatt & Ford, 1996) [3], 300 seals, otters and countless marine mammals perished, and the ecological impact had long-term repercussions, affecting populations in general in terms of growth, reproduction, food chain, etc.

Oil spill in Shetland Islands

On 5 January 1993, a Braer Corp. ship, loaded with about 84,700 metric tons of crude oil (Kingston, 1999) [4], collided with the rocks of Cape Garths Ness, Shetland Islands (Scotland), due to the strong waves that occurred, generating a spill of almost half of the ship’s contents.

This emergency affected an area of international environmental importance (Harris, 1995) [5], as these islands are a key site for birds and a refuge for sea otters. Initially, the rescue was carried out mainly by local volunteers, with a number of local organisations involved, providing centres for the basic care of birds and mammals, which were then transported to other sites for recovery. However, due to the high levels of stress and confinement in which the animals were kept, the mortality rate was high for the birds; of the 207 individuals that were taken to the centres, 113 of them died. As for the mammals, as in the case of the seals, they presented different symptoms of respiratory, eye and nose problems, among others.

A total of 1567 dead animals were collected from the beaches, the majority of which were birds. This indicates that there was a lack of adequate and effective preparedness to respond quickly to the emergency, as few animals were able to be rehabilitated despite the various rehabilitation centres that were set up.

Oil spill in the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands, located in Ecuador, is one of the most important and largest marine reserves in the world, characterised by the presence of different endemic species and relevant environmental and tourist services. However, in January 2001, on San Cristobal Island, which is part of this group of islands, there was a spill of around 240,000 gallons of fuel oil due to the grounding of the oil tanker Jessica of the Acotramar Company. This emergency resulted in 370 animals affected, of which 145 were marine iguanas, 117 pelicans and 79 sea lions (Lougheed et al., 2002) [6]. The rescue and rehabilitation of the fauna was carried out by different international entities and the Charles Darwin Foundation, where the strategies were aimed at the recovery of the largest number of animals, cleaning, training of rescue personnel, land and aerial inspections, among others.

Sea Lion Breeding Wash in the Galapagos Islands
Fuente: [8]

As well as the three cases presented, information can be found in the literature on other emergencies that have occurred in other countries, although each under different scenarios, all of them have the same impact on fauna, and therefore, recovery plans are a fundamental tool, as they must establish the different strategies for the management of the affected animals and the protection of those that are highly vulnerable. The experiences of emergencies show that in the vast majority of cases the following difficulties are encountered:

  • Absence of a recovery plan that initially identifies the possible species exposed to any affectation and whether they are categorised as species of importance or threatened.
  • Insufficient expertise in the care of oiled wildlife.
  • The time to initiate wildlife rescue actions is very long, therefore, mortality cannot be reduced.
  • Lack of monitoring to follow up on affected populations.
  • Lack of environmental sensitivity analysis to prioritise areas, identify breeding sites, feeding sites, etc.

From this international perspective, for Colombia the invitation focuses on the reflection and evaluation of the instruments for the protection and preservation of fauna at the national level, the development of specialised studies on risk management means making safe predictions on the impacts of hydrocarbons that affect different ecosystems. Specialised training to locate, capture and rehabilitate wildlife impregnated with hazardous substances is an extremely important factor in emergency preparedness and response, as well as the need to work together with industry, authorities and academia in the formulation of guidelines for the clean-up of wildlife, tailored to the conditions of our country.

VARICHEM DE COLOMBIA, GEPS as a company specialised in Environmental and Risk Management, will continue working on the development of tools, methodologies and planning instruments, which allow our clients to ensure an adequate preparation and execution of oil spill response, as well as in the post-emergency recovery phase.

Sources of information:

[1] IPIECA. 2004. IPIECA Report Series Volume 13: A guide to planning responses to petroleum fauna. International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association, Volume 13. 48pp.

  • Animal welfare: Any individual animal represents intrinsic values (including religious or cultural values) and its welfare should be maximised if it is removed from the natural environment.
  • Conservation: A wild animal represents a healthy, natural and undisturbed environment, it is an intrinsic part of the environment and for that reason should be preserved.
  • Non-intervention: A wild animal should not receive any form of human assistance; its survival should depend solely on natural conditions.

[2] Berg, Catherine. 1999. The Exxon Valdez spill: 10 years later. Endangered Species Bulletin, Volume XXIV (2): 18 – 19.

[3] Piatt, J.F. & Ford, R.G. 1996. How many seabirds were killed by the Exxon Valdez oil spill? American Fisheries Society Symposium Vol 18. 712-719.

[4] Harris, Chris (1995) THE BRAER INCIDENT: SHETLAND ISLANDS, JANUARY 1993. International Oil Spill Conference Proceedings: February-March 1995, Vol. 1995, No. 1, pp. 813-819.

[5] Kingston, P. 2009. Recovery of the marine enviroment following the Braer spill, Shetland. International Oil Spill Conference. 19 pp.

[6] Lougheed, L.W., G.J. Edgar and H.L. Snell, eds. 2002. Biological Impacts of the Jessica Oil Spill on the Galapagos Environment: Final Report v.1.10. Charles Darwin Foundation, Puerto Ayora, Galápagos, Ecuador.

[7] Photo taken from

[8] Photo taken from


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